On Being Creative When Life Feels Awful

The past six months have been like swimming uphill in an avalanche. I’ve changed cities and states. I have a new role on a new project team at work. I bought my first house and survived the sale of another.  During the lead-up to our move my husband and I spent three months living in separate states. While he began a new gig in Pittsburgh, I wrangled with realtors and repairmen in Maryland to finish the sale of our home outside of Washington, DC. Together, we packed dozens of boxes and dreamed of a day when we could both know where our can openers and socks were.

Things accelerated instead of growing calmer. I flew back from speaking at a national conference the same week we closed on our new home. Our lender needed new documents at the 11th hour. The seller hadn’t vacated. And then, the day after we moved in, my husband was called away on a 36-hour emergency flight to the Philippines to be at the bedside of his dying grandmother.

When we envisioned our start in a new city, this was not how we pictured it.

Moonrise over the Atlantic.

Throughout this spaghetti pile of transition, I kept writing. I burrowed deep into 19th-century England and South America and lost myself in battles fought 200 years ago, in silk dresses and kid leather slippers, in exquisite letters written in a style at once eloquent and arcane.

I was rebuilding a book, an effort undertaken following a fiction workshop with the wonderful Meg Wolitzer at the 2017 Southampton Writers Conference. The workshop fueled me to re-attack my manuscript, and attack I did. I felt closer to the finish than ever.

I sent the manuscript out for feedback (a second round of beta readers.) Feedback came back. Some positive, some negative. Some unhelpful, some constructive. And one piece of feedback was so devastating that it brought my writing to a standstill.

I doubted the book. Worse, I doubted myself. For months, I couldn’t look at my novel.

When the doubt became unbearable, I began a rewrite. I tried a new point of view, new chapters, new settings. There was a temporary relief to be moving again. But I still didn’t know where I was moving to. I was only walking in the dark.

Then came August, and with it, the loss of two family members. One was only 37. He left behind far too many “Whys?” and “What ifs?” for comfort. At his funeral I started at the box that held his ashes, and began remembering him living. Remembering playing alongside each other as children, remembering meeting at my grandmother’s every Christmas. Knowing that we would never meet again. Feeling sunk under the thought of a life burned down to only what a small metal box could hold. For he was more than that, and the unlived years felt bleak and colossally unfair.

The other death did not surprise me with its suddenness, and I felt some relief at the passing of one who herself longed to rest. She had lived a full century, through the Great Depression, a World War, Civil Rights, a man landing on the moon. She saw the beginnings of radio, television, rock n’ roll, computers. In short, a world that changed far faster than she could.

 As I spoke the eulogy for a woman who had lived 100 years, I realized that life is an aggregate. We are sums of parts. We are built through time. We are not defined by grand gestures, but by small moments.

Small moments, like getting up. Making coffee and noticing the color of the sky. Reading something just because. Getting out a new notebook. Opening a laptop. Going on.

I have no wiser words than these – go on. For to write is to look at a thousand roads and choose, and choose again, and to keep choosing always with the daring faith that you, and you alone, hold the end, and the beginning, and all that is in between.

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